The alarm bells behind Iran’s alleged assassination plot

October 17, 2011

Amere moment or two after the Obama administration announced it had discovered and thwarted a plot by Iran to kill Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States by bombing a Washington restaurant, the doubters started to air their doubts. Columnists and experts, even some columnists who were not experts, said the Iranians would never be so sloppy as to commit a virtual act of war by setting off a bomb in the nation’s capital. The alleged plot was crazy, they said. I agree. But so is Iran.

It’s not as if the Iranian intelligence services, particularly the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, usually operate deftly and leave no fingerprints. This is a regime that commenced what amounts to mass murder soon after it came to power. It executed not only its opponents but also its critics. It even went after exiled Iranians. In 1991, it murdered the former prime minister, Shapour Bakhtiar, in Paris. He was stabbed to death — how’s that for sloppy? — and in 2010, when France freed one of Bakhtiar’s killers, he was given a hero’s welcome in Tehran.

Iran was blamed by Argentine prosecutors for the 1994 bombing of the Buenos Aires Jewish center that killed 85 and wounded at least 300. It has been implicated in the 1996 bombing of a housing complex in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 U.S. airmen and wounded another 372 people. It is the chief sponsor of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Both are terror organizations that Iran has used as proxies.

More recently, Iran is suspected of playing a role in the 2005 assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, five times prime minister of Lebanon and an immensely wealthy and effective businessman. He was killed when a bomb detonated as his car went by. This may well have been a group endeavor — Syria, Hezbollah and, in training and aid, Iran. Hariri was not only a force for stability but he was extremely close to the Saudi royal family and maintained a home in Riyadh. The Saudis took his death personally.

The mistake with Iran is the tendency to think its leadership is rational. This may not be the case. The country’s leaders are Islamic fundamentalists who would surely kill any member of the Saudi royal family, custodians of the holy city of Mecca and fervid Sunnis all. The Iranians are just as fervid Shiites. They have many enemies, including their own people, whom they oppress in the name of God and torture with abandon. In Iraq, the Iranians have gotten away with a proxy war against the United States. If they indeed undertook that Washington operation, it’s because they have achieved so much and paid so little.

No easy answers exist to the problem of Iran. Sanctions hurt, but not so much that it has caused Tehran to abandon what looks like a nuclear weapons program. If Iran succeeds, the Saudis will want their own bomb and maybe Egypt will, too. The United States will have to offer its nuclear umbrella as protection. But the Saudis have lately found Barack Obama to be less than a steadfast friend. (The dumping of Hosni Mubarak, which Obama supported, sickened them.) If a nuclear arms race accelerates, the Middle East then goes from merely dangerous to incredibly scary. It will be scarier still if Iran retains its contempt for American power.

For years, virtually the first word out of any Israeli official’s mouth has been Iran. Invariably, these Israelis are treated as either paranoid or duplicitous. Few in the West take Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s threats to exterminate Israel seriously. But Israelis have some experience with the irrational and its consequences, and they do not easily dismiss threats of genocide. They look to America to do something. So far they have looked in vain.

It would be an incalculable mistake for the Obama administration — and the petulantly irresponsible Russians and Chinese — to see the alleged Iranian plot as the reckless act of some runaway intelligence chief. Instead, I refer the White House to the wisdom of Bill Haydon, the traitor in John le Carre’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.” Haydon recognized that intelligence services are not rogue agencies, but “the only real measure of a nation’s political health, the only real expression of its subconscious.”

He was right. The alleged Washington bomb plot does not tell you something that’s limited to Iran’s Quds Force; it offers an insight into the entire Iranian regime. It’s too reckless to be allowed a nuclear arsenal.

richardcohen@washpost.com

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